Love’s Wavering Image

Van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone

Spiritual Sunday

I share a lovely Longfellow poem about gazing into dark waters, featuring the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme that we associate with the poet.  The speaker recalls a time in the past when he was depressed and wished the tide would carry him away. He no longer feels that way but imagines others experiencing such sorrow.

While the heart has its passions and life has its woes, we are ever sustained by God’s love, which Longfellow sees symbolized by the moon. We may experience that love imaged in the water rather than seeing it face to face—we see through the glass darkly, to draw on Paul’s well-known passage to the Corinthians –but we can be reassured by its constancy. I suspect Longfellow is also drawing on Plato’s parable of the cave, where we sense the divine through the shadows it casts.

The Bridge
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I stood on the bridge at midnight, 
   As the clocks were striking the hour, 
And the moon rose o'er the city, 
  Behind the dark church-tower. 

I saw her bright reflection 
   In the waters under me, 
Like a golden goblet falling 
   And sinking into the sea. 
And far in the hazy distance
    Of that lovely night in June, 
The blaze of the flaming furnace
    Gleamed redder than the moon. 
Among the long, black rafters
    The wavering shadows lay, 
And the current that came from the ocean
    Seemed to lift and bear them away; 
As, sweeping and eddying through them,
    Rose the belated tide, 
And, streaming into the moonlight,
    The seaweed floated wide. 
And like those waters rushing
    Among the wooden piers, 
A flood of thoughts came o’er me
    That filled my eyes with tears. 
How often, O, how often,
    In the days that had gone by, 
I had stood on that bridge at midnight
    And gazed on that wave and sky! 
How often, O, how often,
    I had wished that the ebbing tide 
Would bear me away on its bosom
    O’er the ocean wild and wide! 
For my heart was hot and restless,
    And my life was full of care, 
And the burden laid upon me
    Seemed greater than I could bear. 
But now it has fallen from me, 
   It is buried in the sea; 
And only the sorrow of others
    Throws its shadow over me. 
Yet whenever I cross the river
    On its bridge with wooden piers, 
Like the odor of brine from the ocean
    Comes the thought of other years. 
And I think how many thousands
     Of care-encumbered men, 
Each bearing his burden of sorrow, 
  Have crossed the bridge since then. 
I see the long procession
    Still passing to and fro, 
The young heart hot and restless,
   And the old subdued and slow! 
And forever and forever,
   As long as the river flows, 
As long as the heart has passions,
    As long as life has woes; 
The moon and its broken reflection
    And its shadows shall appear, 
As the symbol of love in heaven,
    And its wavering image here. 
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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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